ONLY NOISE: Music For Airports

music for airports

When Brian Eno first got the idea to make Ambient 1/Music For Airports, he was indeed within such a place: the Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany, to be exact. His goal was to make music to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular” according to the record’s liner notes. This music would be “as ignorable as it is interesting,” ultimately neutralizing the chaotic and tense microcosm that is an airline terminal, or as I like to call it, hell on earth.

The record itself is many things: soothing, transcendent, gorgeous, subtle…adjectives which today, almost 40 years after the release of Music For Airports, are light-years from capturing the foul, soul-sucking, hyper-capitalistic essence of even the “nicest” plane parking lots.

Eno, completely aware of the hectic, complex world of the airport, wanted to make music that addressed the specific needs of such a space, and he didn’t mince words when explaining those needs. In an interview from a few decades ago, he describes his inspiration in greater depth.

“It came from a specific experience. I was in a beautiful airport…Cologne Airport, which is a very beautiful building. Early one Sunday morning, the light was beautiful; everything was beautiful, except they were playing awful music. And I thought, ‘there’s something completely wrong that people don’t think about the music that goes into situations like this.’ You know, they spend hundreds of millions of pounds on the architecture, on everything, except the music. The music comes down to someone bringing in a tape of their favorite songs this week and sticking them in and the whole airport is filled with this sound. So, I thought it’d be interesting to actually start writing music for public spaces like that.”

While I personally feel that Eno achieved the perfect score to flight on Music For Airports, I can’t say that such an approach has been applied to actual airports. While we may no longer endure the cheesy corporate muzak or “elevator music” of the 80s and 90s (now reserved exclusively for healthcare company hold music), the sonic output of terminals remains troubling in a whole new way. Take for instance my experience at Chicago O’Hare International Airport a few weeks ago, whereupon sitting on the toilet in the Gate B bathroom I heard not Enya or Brian Eno, but “Stars of Track and Field” by Belle and Sebastian.

Come again?

This set off another memory. I was on a Delta flight to Brazil, and, being bored with the pre-takeoff formalities, decided to scroll through the in-flight music they offered. To my surprise, they not only had The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, but also Post Pop Depression, Iggy Pop’s latest record, as well as other albums by what marketing experts would deem “indies.”

Though I shouldn’t have been, I must admit I was surprised. Air travel is the last bastion (aside from perhaps hotel services and high-end dining) of the old-fashioned, uniformed business structure; the security, composure of the flight attendants, the caste system set in place by the boarding/seating matrix…the whole ambiance makes it a bit strange that they would supply passengers with Iggy Pop singing about Gardenia’s “hourglass ass.” Even though I found it both convenient and pleasurable that such tunes were available, I was also disturbed by it. Isn’t it slightly insulting to stick me in seat 23 B back by the shitter, make me pay for stale pretzels, and then pretend that you, Delta Airlines, knows about Iggy Pop?

But contrary to Eno’s airport in the ‘70s, it must be said that airlines today overthink about what is playing aboard. It isn’t breaking news that airports, which are basically glorified, overpriced shopping malls, picked up on the same marketing strategies that make us feel cool when we buy a certain brand of soap over another. The reason Delta Airlines has the new Iggy Pop record is the same reason American Airlines replaced schmaltzy muzak with “indie rock” to score-boarding and landing periods.

It’s the exact principle laid out in Commodify Your Dissent, a collection of essays from The Baffler addressing how the initial emblems of counterculture rebellion (i.e. rock music, leather jackets, tofu) have now become the tools of advertisers, CEOs, and the like. In a brilliant essay by Dave Mulcahey entitled “Leadership and You,” the author quotes Andrew Susman’s book Advertising Age:

“The inter-relationship of advertising and programming increase because customer tastes and preferences are known in advance. Programming and advertising become interchangeable, as consumers are living inside a perpetual marketing event.”


Perhaps Mr. Eno could resurface to make us a new beautiful record entitled: Music For Living Inside A Perpetual Marketing Event. If he’s too busy, here are a couple suggestions. When you consider what might be appropriate music for airports or airplanes, you must consider a few factors.

  1. Flying sucks.

Traversing the cattle parade of the airport, from checking in, to schlepping through TSA, to finally sitting in your tiny, miserable seat: all of it is an absolute nightmare. No one has described this form of middle-class torture better than professional rant machine Henry Rollins. In “Airport Hell,” a cut off his 1998 “spoken word” record Think Tank, Rollins goes into gruesomely accurate detail about the avoidable blunders people make while traveling.

“I think it’s the mentality of lines,” barks Rollins. “Standing in lines, peoples’ IQs plummet…No one can figure out how to sit down in 13A. They walk in the aisle, they’re holding their little boarding stub like it’s delicate information and they look hopelessly lost. They look at it, and look up. Look at it, and look up.”

This is of the milder portions of the diatribe, but I’d say it’s worth the 15 minutes of listening to “Airport Hell” in full. While it may only infuriate you further, it will at least bolster your sense of humor and self-importance as you sprint through JFK with one shoe on and the other in your hand, dodging small children and tourists with their cargo ships of luggage on lopsided carts.

2. Increased fear of dying.

I have been flying since before I can remember, and from age 0 to 24, have had no such fear of it. I was so unafraid, that other passengers’ fear was comical to me. At 14 I was at peace with my own mortality and powerlessness. If the plane would tremble, I would liken it to a roller coaster. If it would drop slightly, I would rest assured that my death would matter not in the grand scheme of things, and even if it did, I still couldn’t stop it. Ahhh, the sweet smell of young, nihilistic liberation!

Enter my 25th year, during which I, through no rational explanation, cultivated an intense, out-of-the-blue, bowel-shuddering fear of flying. I know not its point of origin nor its psychological ramifications. I only know it exists. I know this by the sweat on my palms when the plane takes off, by my nervous glances when flight attendants start to hand out anything for free, especially booze. It is a condition I have tried to treat with music (and wine), though my approach has been flawed. I initially thought that dosing myself with “up” songs (and wine) would do the trick. My column from a couple of weeks ago, “Shiny Happy Pop Songs Holding Hands” was written at Chicago O’Hare as an attempt (along with wine) to battle my own aviophobia. It did not work. Perhaps the jubilant tone was my misstep. As I look back to the vintage interview with Eno, I absorb his unique angle on the mood of ideal airport music:

“I was thinking about flying at the time because I thought that everything that was connected with flying was kind of a lie. When you went into an airport or an airplane they always played this very happy music, which sort of is saying, ‘you’re not going to die! There’s not going to be an accident! Don’t worry!’ and I thought that was really the wrong way ‘round. I thought that it would be much better to have music that said, ‘well, if you die, it doesn’t really matter.’ So I wanted to create a different feeling, that you were sort of suspended in the universe and your life or death wasn’t so important.”

Losing Altitude: Songs to Die To. Considering we can’t have free booze or even decent food (let alone free decent food) perhaps the good people of these airlines would allow some sort of in-flight access to any and all of the music you damn pleased. In the case of a loss of cabin pressure: Nils Frahm. Unexpected rough air: Kate Bush. Bird-in-propeller: Richard Hell. At the very least, airports could give spinning Music For Airports a go, because I’d sure as shit rather face my imminent mortality to that than the goddamn Lumineers. After all, Brian Eno made it just for us.



ONLY NOISE: Memento Mori-Alan Vega

alan vega

“I think all art comes out of conflict.” It was the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates who spoke these words, but it was Alan Vega who lived them.

Vega, who fronted the indescribable proto-punk duo Suicide from 1970 to Saturday, has unfortunately passed away over the weekend at 78. His death lengthens a devastating list of artists we’ve lost this year. Henry Rollins broke the news with a statement from Vega’s family.

I woke Sunday morning to word of his death, and instantly that phrase sprang to mind: “all art comes out of conflict.” Art is not only born of chaos, it is chaos. Art is conflict. And what artist exemplified this truth more than Alan Vega? His 46-year partnership with Martin Rev as Suicide (they never called it quits) produced a body of work that is sublimely discordant-like an Edgerton snapshot of fruit being eviscerated by a bullet. An explosion made delicate by means of destruction.

Vega’s music is a monument to the avant garde, the dark, and the soulful. And it is, for me, the embodiment of everything I look for in art. Something dangerous, yet repulsively gorgeous. Something that makes you fear for your own sanity. Suicide’s eponymous debut from 1977 is as awash with this kind of dissonance as it is sounds of the future. Its severity is matched only by its simplicity-Vega’s croons and shrieks loping over Rev’s unrelenting synths and drum machine. That record predicted post punk before punk had learned how to spell its own name. You can hear its influence in Throbbing Gristle’s work, and Sonic Youth’s and even Bruce Springsteen’s; the latter admittedly an enormous Suicide fan. The Boss has not only attributed “State Trooper” off of 1982’s Nebraska to Suicide’s influence-he also covered the duo’s song “Dream Baby Dream” throughout his career.

Springsteen recently paid homage to Vega with a eulogy he published on his website:

“Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock and roll. The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan slightly and he was always a generous and sweet spirit. The blunt force power of his greatest music both with Suicide and on his solo records can still shock and inspire today. There was simply no one else remotely like him.”

It might seem a stretch that one of America’s most successful musicians would have such obscure tastes, but if you listen to Suicide tracks like “Ghost Rider” and “Frankie Teardrop,” the influence might not be so shocking. Springsteen is known for his pointblank narratives of working class drudgery. That same desolation can be found in “Frankie Teardrop,” a disturbing tale of a disgruntled factory worker who massacres his family in a fit of insanity.

Suicide is an album that still sounds treacherous today. This cannot be said of much from its era. It is a difficult thing to admit, as it was an exceptional period in American music. However, I am aware of its historical relevance-that perhaps a Television gig in 2016 might not be as reckless as it was in ’77. Suicide on the other hand, has remained a lung-splintering scream frozen in time. A photograph taken with a rapatronic shutter. But don’t take my word for it. Go ahead. Cut the jams at your next party and put on “Frankie Teardrop” instead. See what happens.

It is important for music, or at least some music to incite panic. In their earlier years Vega and Rev did just that, and drank up the repercussions firsthand. Their shows bear the deviant legacy of hell raisers like Iggy Pop and GG Allin. In 2008, Vega recounted an especially perilous gig to The Guardian:

“That would be the show in Glasgow in 1978 when someone threw an axe at my head. We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man. I felt like I was in a 3-D John Wayne movie. But that was nothing unusual. Every Suicide show felt like world war three in those days. Every night I thought I was going to get killed. The longer it went on, the more I’d be thinking, ‘Odds are it’s going to be tonight.'”

I sometimes feel that Suicide were the Dylan-going-electric of punk rock. And while I suspect that thought would cause Vega to roll in his grave, it’s a comparison I find comfort in. When the world cried “Judas!” at Dylan’s new noise, it wasn’t the sound they were screaming at-it was the icon he burned and the bird that rose from it. Punk was so busy edifying its defiant image that it was out-defied by Vega and Rev…the ultimate prank. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it.

But despite all the mayhem in Suicide’s history, all the near-death evenings and endless assaults, Vega remained a sincere artist, a loving family man, and a hilarious interviewee. In the same interview from ’08 he recalled the shift between being public enemy #1 and becoming an “entertainer”:

“People were looking to be entertained, but I hated the idea of going to a concert in search of fun. Our attitude was, ‘Fuck you buddy, you’re getting the street right back in your face. And some.’

The axe in Glasgow was just one of many weapons hurled at us. When we played in Metz, someone scored a direct hit on me with a monkey wrench. I’ve still got the scar on my head. Supporting Elvis Costello in Brussels, we provoked a full-scale riot and the venue was stormed by police letting off tear-gas canisters. Then something very strange happened. We headlined our own tour of Britain and ended up in Edinburgh. Two songs in and there was no riot, which was very, very unusual. Then we started to see people move around. I turned to Marty and said, ‘Here we go – watch out for flying objects.’ To my amazement, people started dancing. I turned back to Marty and said, ‘We’re finished, our career is over.’

We’ve turned into fucking entertainers. It was never meant to turn out that way. But what can you do? People are completely unshockable now. Even if you brought a fresh corpse out on stage and started eating it with a fork, no one would bat an eyelid. Still, one of the things about playing live these days is that at least we know we’re not going to die on stage. That’s kinda nice, man.”

Vega’s wry sense of humor always peeked through his work, even when veiled with the most hideous snarl. It surprisingly wasn’t always doom and gloom with Suicide; their fragility surfaced on cuts like “Girl,” “Dream Baby Dream,” and “Child, It’s a New World.” The former being my personal favorite-and not a bad tune for a romp might I add. In spite of the band’s propensity for violence and distortion, they were also vulnerable…far more than they’d have liked you to believe. This diversity was apparent to those who took time to listen between the crashing beer bottles. For them, Suicide were a beacon of possibility; a manifesto for undefined sound.

Alan Vega may have not wanted to be an entertainer; that’s just what happened over time. More accurately, Vega was an artist. A real conflicted motherfucker.

R.I.P Alan. Thank you for the noise.